GREEN BAY – Matt LaFleur had front-row seats to the breakout two years ago.
As the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator and play-caller, LaFleur watched Derrick Henry go from a first-round pick with loads of potential to an All-Pro running back ready to impose his will on NFL defenses.
Since Henry rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-9 win over Jacksonville on Dec. 6, 2018, no NFL running back has produced more on the ground than Henry's 3,804 rushing yards over his last 33 regular-season games.
Now, as the second-year head coach of the Packers, LaFleur has the task of quieting the 26-year-old running back's storm this Sunday in a marquee interconference battle between NFC-front-runner Green Bay (11-3) and the AFC South-leading Titans (10-4).
"He sets it all up because you've got to play the run," said LaFleur of Henry on Sunday evening. "They will stay consistent and they will pound you into the ground. When you start stepping up and trying to take the run away, they throw the ball over your head."
The cat-and-mouse game of defending Henry was in full effect as Tennessee's 46-25 rout of Detroit unfolded Sunday. The Lions committed to stopping Henry early, which opened up a 75-yard touchdown from Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to top receiver Corey Davis off play-action on the first play of Tennessee's second possession.
On the next drive, Henry ran the ball five times for 46 yards on an eight-play, 93-yard drive that ended with a Tannehill 17-yard scramble for a touchdown. Henry finished with 142 rushing yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, the ninth time he's rushed for at least 100 yards this season.
Arthur Smith is the man behind the controls of Tennessee's second-ranked offense, a unit that has scored 40 or more points on four separate occasions this year. A longtime Titans assistant coach, Smith succeeded LaFleur as offensive coordinator after he left for Green Bay's head coaching job in 2019.
"He's got that offense rolling," LaFleur said. "It's a credit to not only those players there but the rest of those coaches. I can't tell you enough how big of a challenge it's going to be for us. It's going to be a great measuring stick to kind of see where we're at right now."
Defensively, the Packers are coming off one of their better outings of the season during Sunday's 24-16 win over Carolina. Green Bay conceded just one touchdown in five red-zone trips, while earning a key goal-line takeaway in the second quarter.
There were a couple breakdowns in pass coverage LaFleur lamented, as Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater completed eight passes of 15 or more yards. However, Green Bay's run defense was stout, not allowing a carry of more than 12 yards to a Carolina running back.
In the team's three December wins, the Packers have allowed just 204 rushing yards on 54 carries (3.8 yards per attempt) to skill-position players. Those performances have Green Bay sitting just outside of the top 10 in run defense, allowing 110.1 yards per game, with two games left in the regular season.
"I just think there's been a big-time emphasis on the run game," LaFleur said. "Our guys have taken that to heart, they've taken the challenge. I think we've done a much better job of coaching the run fits and being sound in the run game, and we're going to have to continue to do that."
That being said, Henry presents a whole different set of challenges. Equipped with what LaFleur affectionately calls a "very violent and angry" running style, Henry's power tests even the hardiest of defensive fronts over a four-quarter game.
While Henry is the main attraction, Tannehill is having the best full season of his career with 3,482 passing yards, 31 TDs and five INTs. His top two targets, Davis and A.J. Brown, have combined for 1,826 yards and 15 TDs this year.
Defensively, the Packers received one bit of good news Sunday. Linebacker Krys Barnes is expected to be fine after leaving with an eye injury against Carolina. Wearing the communication headset on most plays, the undrafted rookie from UCLA had six tackles and forced the goal-line fumble of Bridgewater.
"He does such a great job of communicating everything that needs to go on out there," LaFleur said of Barnes. "I think he sees plays very, very quickly. He's able to process and diagnose, and there's no hesitation in his game. Once he sees it, he goes."
The matchup against the Titans provides the perfect test for not only the run defense, but also the Packers' third-ranked scoring offense. Green Bay produced touchdowns on its first three possessions Saturday, with running back Aaron Jones registering 114 total yards in the first two quarters, before the offense fell into a lull during the second half.
Facing a 10-win team looking to win its first division title in 12 years, the Packers know a complete performance and contributions from three phases will be needed to turn back the Titans this Sunday at Lambeau Field.
"I think in the National Football League, especially when you're talking about December football going into the playoffs, you've got to find different ways to win the game," LaFleur said.
"Sometimes you've got to lean on the ground game. Wish we would've gone to it a little bit more. We didn't. We've got to learn from it, move on and it's on to the Tennessee Titans."
Lambeau Field hosted a Week 15 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.